Book Review: Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, by Elaine Byrne

As is the case with unhappy families, every corrupt state is corrupt in its own way: in Ireland, an entrenched, localized “parish pump” political system; weak regulation;
devout deference to authority; and a predisposition to denigrate whistleblowers as “informers” all contributed to widespread malpractice in public office. Consequently, Irish corruption, as Elaine A. Byrne writes, “operated within a system rather than a mere aggregation of isolated illegal acts. It had become a market, which, as in the case of every functioning market, has developed internal rules governed by the laws of supply and demand”.

It was not always thus. The generation of political leaders that fought for – and won – Irish independence, possessed a “puritan revolutionary ethic”: Michael Collins, who
was both Minister for Finance and IRA Intelligence director from 1919 until his death in
1922, excoriated ministerial colleagues’ failure to submit half-year estimates for their departments during his tenure in office.

Paradoxically, this radical zeal contained within it the roots of future corruption. Adopting a narrow definition of corruption as the exchange of public goods for private gain, the Free State’s early leaders saw no need to legislate against conflicts of interest. In 1946, in the wake of a tax scandal, one Irish TD told a sympathetic Dáil that the Ten Commandments and “the ordinary principles of decency and good conduct” were sufficient to ensure probity in Irish public life.

The first substantial piece of legislation on political corruption was not introduced until
1995. By then the damage had long been done. The McCracken Tribunal, established in 1997, estimated that the former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey received at least £9,106,369 in political donations between 1979 and 1996. Haughey was not alone; from the 1950s on vested interests exerted ever increasing degrees of undue influence over
Irish policy-making and regulation, to the point where, in the recent boom, tens of thousands of houses were built without access to amenities or, as in the Larry Goodman scandal, the Irish taxpayer was underwriting fraudulent beef exports to Iraq.

A political scientist at Trinity College Dublin, and a prominent commentator in the Irish media, Byrne has produced a perspicacious, highly readable account of the way Irish corruption morphed as the state’s political, economic and social structures changed. In the wake of Ireland’s loss of economic sovereignty, the book’s central message – that only a vibrant, transparent political culture offers effective protection against the corrosive power of corruption – seems particularly vital.

This review originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.